HVSF’s “Romeo & Juliet” Are Star-Crossed Seniors

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has opened up their new home with a rejuvenated, fresh, coursing take on Romeo & Juliet, with a simple change in casting the two leads. They have cast the titular teenage lovers with Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson, beloved mainstays of the company who are considerably older than that. The policy of inclusive casting has stretched from ethnicity, gender and race to age as well, and will provoke you to think about the play, love, aging and death in a new way.

Kurt Rhoads, Nance Williamson/ T Charles Erickson

Rhoads and Williamson have been married for 38 years, both have performed with HVSF for over 20 years, and this is their 69th production together. They have played the Macbeths, Antony & Cleopatra and Titania & Oberon. We never doubt for a second that their Romeo & Juliet are in love and meant for each other. What else do we hear and see in their attraction, courtship and marriage? I’ve always thought it would be rich territory to cast seniors as children. If you’ve spent any time at all in retirement or assisted living communities, you will quickly see that most of the memories go back to childhood, and that a great deal of the aged resident’s waking life seems connected to a far distant past.

Rhoads and Williamson do not play children, but simply play the actions and speech Shakespeare has given them. Rhoads is a steady presence whose piercing gaze (helped by a sound cue and a lighting shift) aimed at Juliet is ignited at the Capulet’s masked ball. Williamson’s Juliet rushes back and forth from her balcony, presented simply as a step stool, with the urgency of a woman newly in love. Their romantic scenes gain stature as played by these two mature masters, and the finale at the crypt gains new poignancy when you know the two lovers have had a full life together. Juliet’s hand rises unseen by Romeo as he reclines; “Eyes, look your last.”

The director’s notes by Gaye Taylor Upchurch states that this is a tragedy, that the community surrounding Romeo and Juliet (Juliet’s family and Romeo’s friends) are all doing their best and they fail. Emily Ota, wearing a cheeky Prince t-shirt, issues the forceful warning to the two warring families, but it can’t be helped as they share the same streets where Zoe Goslin (as Tybalt) and Luis Quintero (as Mercutio) tangle. Britney Nicole Simpson and Zachary Fine present an explosive household as the Capulets.

Lauren Karaman, Nance Williamson, Britney Nicole Simpson/ T Charles Erickson

The tragedy may be felt even more acutely due to the high spirits generated in the first act by two superlatively funny performances by Quintero and Lauren Karaman as Nurse. They are both so quick, spontaneous, and voluble…they seem to be startling themselves with the rush of poetry spilling out of their mouths. Karaman has a delicious laugh as well that bubbles up to the top of the tent in Act I.

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has staged this tragedy with music (Saul Nache is the music director), opening the two acts with hymns. There are vibrant colors in the costumes which take the place of scenery in this theater in the round. The cast enters and don strikingly vibrant shirts, I especially liked Mercutio’s rose patterned top and Capulet’s Versace-esque jacket sparkles. Costumes are by Enver Chakartash. Two quick, effectively heart quickening sword fights are staged by Kimiye Corwin.

The Company/T Charles Erickson

The tent has been moved intact. The wind kicked up towards the close of Act I providing some much-needed coolness to the day and also an appreciated assist to Juliet’s line “I have no joy of this contract tonight/ It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, too like the lightning…” As the lit tree visible in the tent’s opening whipped back and forth behind Nance, the audience cheered her seemingly magical powers to conjure nature’s effects to underline her speech.

“Romeo & Juliet” at HVSF is a powerful testament to the undeniable, restorative, essential nature of love played for real by two consummate actors with a thrilling company against all odds.

Through 9/18 @ Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

Tickets: [email protected] or 845-265=9575

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